The benefits that come from going for a good walk are fairly obvious: it gets the body moving, exercising and strengthening the legs; it strengthens the heart and gets the blood pumping round your system; it deepens the breathing and opens your lungs to refreshing air.
It offers a very effective way to practise mindfulness, to find peace in the present moment. But another benefit is not often mentioned – it can also be a very creative exercise.
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The creativeness of walking is celebrated in Australian Aboriginal myth. The first migrants to the continent, fifty thousand years ago, walked deep into the interior, from rock outcrop to billabong, from salt pan to dry river bed, through a blistering red landscape dotted with tufts of dry white spinifex, weaving their way through wattle, thorn bush and spear-like desert oak. Snakes hid in the sand, and in the deep blue sky shoals of green budgerigars converged on waterholes.
The Aborigines recorded their journeys in song as a way of map-making, identifying the features of that extraordinary wilderness so that others could follow the path. These were the songlines, the invisible pathways that criss-cross Australia, pathways that the ancestors walked in the beginning. In Aboriginal memory, this all took place in the Dreamtime, when the ancestors are believed to have created the land by singing it into existence.
According to this mythical way of thinking, the singer, the song and the path are all one; the first people created the land by being there, seeing it for the first time and walking to its horizons.
A philosophical conundrum
Dig deep into a myth that has stood the test of time and we come to a truth clothed in the form of a story or an image.
The Dreamtime songlines suggest that we have a creative relationship with the country we walk through, and in a real sense we create what we see by looking and listening. We can never be detached observers.
There is an old philosophical chestnut that asks: ‘When a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound?’ A falling tree hitting the ground generates pressure waves in the air, which are picked up by our ears and registered as sound by our brains.
Pressure waves themselves, without the interpretation of an observer, are not sound; we create the sense of sound through our relationship with the environment, by listening.
The same is true for light and colour. There is no colour in the flowers of a spring hedgerow or a sunset sky until we, as observers, are there to ‘tune in’ to the various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that penetrate our eyes.
Colour is the way we see these things. Without us, the concept of colour is meaningless.
We bring with us not only a point of view – our position on the path as we walk – but also the way in which we register the bundles of energy that impact on our eyes and ears.
We interpret the scene in our own way. Looking and listening are themselves creative activities.
But what is the world like when we are not looking at it? Some philosophers have found that pondering this question can be a strangely disturbing exercise.
Unravelling the knot
At a more mundane level, the act of walking mindfully clears the head, making us receptive to new ideas. Many writers bear witness to the fact that when they get stuck in their writing it is often a walk that shifts the blockage.
The key is to let go of the problem. This requires the same mindful exercise we use for finding peace in the present moment by focusing attention on breathing and walking. It is like relaxing a clenched muscle.
In the case of a writing block, or any other mental knot that is hindering progress, we need to give some freedom to the subconscious by allowing the mind to let go.
Often the solution to our problem bubbles to the surface when we are no longer struggling with it; the knot is unravelled. The walking has helped with our creativeness, getting things moving.
In every mindful walk we are also making subtle changes to ourselves – for example, allowing our attitudes to others to be more compassionate; freeing ourselves from destructive habits, thoughts or prejudices; being liberated from anxieties we have clung to for too long.
Walking is a recreational activity, and we tend to forget that recreation means just that: we are recreated.
Extract taken from Mindful Thoughts for Walkers: Footnotes on the Zen Path by Adam Ford; Published by Leaping Hare Press, RRP £5.99.